Driving my rental car out of the Whole Foods parking lot in Boca Raton, FL, I caught the eye of a woman holding a sign that said “I lost my job.” (There was more, but I didn’t have time to read the entire sign.) She was a young woman with dark hair, and her free hand sat atop the handle of a baby stroller. I knew she was there for money of course, and in the moment our eyes met, we exchanged a dense packet of information, a download of a hundred thousand gigabytes in a split second.
In an instant, I knew this: She was intelligent and decent, she was in profound emotional pain, she knew I’d spotted her and wanted to give her money, and she also knew I would not actually do so.
There were cars behind me and there was no place to pull over. I’m not used to big, busy South Florida parking lots. I felt (or imagined) the pressure of my fellow motorists’ expectations more keenly than the young woman’s desperation as I proceeded out the lot and onto the street, which had no shoulder.
But her eyes stayed with me, vivid in my mind, all the way to the chess club a few miles away.
I did not want to be bothered by guilt. I wanted to play chess. It even occurred to me that the guilt I felt could interfere with my chess game and cause me to lose. I wanted to go back and find the woman and give her five dollars, but there wasn’t time.
I knew that if I had given the woman money, I would have seen some relief in her face, not just at the receipt of a negligible amount of cash, but also at the small affirmation, the gesture assuring her that she wasn’t merely a blemish on the landscape. I’d had that experience before, as the giver of some small amount of money to a stranger, and had always taken away a nice feeling from it. I wanted that nice feeling now. It would have been worth more than five bucks to buy away my guilt.
But the guilt, and the searing impression of the woman’s pained eyes, were the only takeaway I had. I could only pray that some motorist behind me had found it in their heart to stop and give her something, that somebody had offered her some relief.
The guilt was a physical sensation, a little pain in my upper chest. It did not prevent me from enjoying my chess game. I committed an early blunder, but my opponent made mistakes too. The pain in my chest softened me toward my opponent. I sympathized with how he felt after his errors. We had a pleasant exchange after our game was finished.
The pain in my chest increased my appreciation of my old Florida high school friend, who had arranged this chess club interlude to coincide with my visit.
Most of all, the pain in my chest was a vulnerable point, a portal through which a simple fact penetrated: I am a vastly privileged human in a world of enormous suffering, and this is really not okay. There is something really wrong with this picture, and the guilt I feel—that is, the feeling I call “guilt”—is not inappropriate. And this pain in my chest (though it has already faded) deepens my life, and wakes up a part of me that habitually sleeps.
Tomorrow I will be spreading my mom’s ashes at sea, together with my sister and my mother’s long-time caretaker. This is why I am in Florida. My mother, who passed away last March, made no bones about wanting me to feel guilty, often. She did not apologize for inducing, or instilling, guilt. She said, “You call it a ‘guilt trip,’ as if guilt is some terrible thing, but you should feel guilty sometimes.”
I thought my mom was nuts. And I would still contend that guilt is a useless, toxic emotion, if it’s only about “I’m a bad person. Shame on me.”
But the guilt that resolves into simple pain, the guilt that isn’t so uncompromisingly self-referential, the guilt that seems to be a condition of my (our?) existence; maybe that guilt truly isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s healthy. Maybe guilt and compassion can lead to the same place, a place of pain, but not the type of pain that will kill you—rather, the type of pain that will break open your heart and your life.
I believe, in her heart of hearts and in her saner moments, that’s the only guilt my mom truly desired for me. Not a neurotic, personal guilt, but an unavoidable existential guilt that can be experienced as a small physical pain, like a backache that never quite disappears. A guilt that intensifies appreciation for the privileges that have always characterized my gilded American life. A guilt that softens my judgments, and renders my desires a little less urgent.